A reader has berated this newspaper for its attitude toward "conservatives." The sore point with this reader was an Oliphant editorial cartoon that depicted President George W. Bush in robes and with a halo.

In any given era, certain words convey acceptance as well as immunity. The No. 1 Teflon word in 2005 is "conservative." If you play the conservative card, it means you are level-headed and OK.

For some of us who are not enthralled with what the conservatives have wrought, there is a disconnect. The political label "conservative" has lost its underpinnings. For instance, fiscal conservatism historically has meant budgetary prudence, abhorrence of red ink and discomfort with a large federal deficit.

Conservatism lost its meaning during Ronald Reagan's presidency, when the federal deficit ballooned. What does it mean to be "conservative" if Mr. Conservative fostered a massive budget deficit? Or when a liberal president, Bill Clinton, shrank that deficit?

Now President Bush has outdone Reagan by stoking an even larger federal deficit. But we are reminded daily that Bush is conservative.

Is it conservative to stretch U.S. armed forces to the breaking point? Is it prudent to over-commit our soldiers, sailors, Marines, National Guard and Reserves?

Is it conservative to allow oil exploration in areas that Congress and presidents of both parties have set aside for conservation? Is it conservative to assent to looser clean air and clean water standards that were established to conserve public health?

Is it conservative to allow our national treasures, the national parks, to slide into disrepair for lack of maintenance?

Is it conservative to beckon China to hold a massive amount of U.S. debt?

If you strike a religious pose, you may spread lies about your adversary.The Oliphant cartoon we published on June 1 depicted George Bush in the manner of a sacred painting from the medieval or Renaissance period. Robed and levitating, Bush proclaims in biblical tones that he would veto a stem cell research bill.

I can imagine that Bush loyalists would find that offensive. It makes light of the president's faith-based pose and his religious followers' approval of that posture.

If the label "conservative" is the primary Teflon shield of this administration, "faith-based" or "religious" is the Get-out-of-jail-free card. Utter the religious code words, and you are in the club. Conversely, if you raise questions about faith-based initiatives, you are accused of being offensive to people of faith.

Those who say that Bush's religious pretentiousness should not be mocked forget that he wouldn't be president if he had not played the fundamentalist card. After Bush lost the New Hampshire primary election to Sen. John McCain in 2000, he went directly to the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, a focal point of the next big state primary. Bush's lieutenants launched a whispering campaign that cast aspersions on Sen. McCain's war record (Translation: If you pose as a Christian it's OK to bear false witness against your neighbor).

Sen. McCain committed the unpardonable politico-media sin of losing his temper on television. McCain told Bush he should be ashamed of what he did. How quaint. How uncool.

As many religious commentators have noted, we are in the midst of another extraordinary period of religious activity. Some writers liken it to the Great Awakening, which swept the American colonies in the 17th century.

This religious awakening is very much about the political game. Fundamentalists who used to stay away from the public arena are today at the center of the arena. That's another reason why it is fair comment to note the intersection between the presidency and the pulpit.

Europeans tend to be cynical about the political role of religion. Americans have been more reluctant to see the moral corruption that occurs when the two activities as intertwined. You cannot observe America today and not be aware of the huge political influence of the right-wing religious as well as the Roman Catholic church on public policy.

- S.A.F.

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